Thursday, January 13, 2011


Maybe I was always going to be a librarian.  The summer I broke my foot (I was 8,) I organized my book shelf by title, put pockets and cards in them and checked them out to my friends.  There was one who would not return his books on time and I was strict with him.  "I've given you a lot of kindness," he said, referring to the fact that he'd visited me frequently.  I still wouldn't budge, which shows how flexible I was, where my mind was.  Throughout my childhood and younger years I gravitated toward the local public library, spending considerable time reading and browsing in the stacks.  However, when it came to write research papers, I had no idea, I was flummoxed, perhaps having ignored the librarian's useful instructions about the Reader's Guide and other resources.  Later, working with faculty and graduate students and seeing how they used databases, indexes and journals, gave me an understanding of how it can be done thoroughly.  The graduate students writing theses needed to read virtually everything on their topic, hence the search for obscure journals and interlibrary loan requests.

I went to a small liberal arts college in a midwestern state.  There is a path that runs through the middle of campus and at the time most of the humanities classes were held in the buildings on the left side of the path and the science classes were conducted in the buildings on the right.  I stuck to the left side of the path.  Could not decide on a major, make a choice, I wanted to study everything, as though there were infinite time to do so.  Finally I settled on religion, since I knew nothing about it, and my understanding told me that much of literature and art referenced the scriptures, so it was essential to learn.  I didn't want college to end, but end it did, and I was without a job, a plan, a clue. 

So I went home and applied at a large university, and surprisingly they hired me for an entry-level position in one of their libraries.  I had to file corporate report microfiche, keep track of government document receipts in an oppressive ledger, and fix the microfilm machines when they got jammed.  I moved up a position, shortly after, and then spent several years applying for higher-level jobs and getting turned down.  I did not have an MLS, although the situation certainly seemed to suggest getting one, as the tuition-reimbursement benefits offered by the university were quite generous. I saw other colleagues completing the process and leapfrogging me and I could not make a decision. 

What changed was the university went through a reorganization.  It was a nervous time and jobs were threatened, and I felt lucky to still be in a position.  However, professional positions (reference librarians, for example) in my unit were becoming vacant and not being filled.  The reference staff came up with an idea to train the support staff to back them on the reference desk.  I took the opportunity and soon discovered that I enjoyed interacting with patrons and had a wide knowledge of the library's resources.  My previous years had been behind the scenes in technical services.  As a result of this cross-training, I began to feel like I had a stake in the organization, or at least the work of my immediate unit.

Another opportunity arose, this time in a branch library within this same university's library system.  It was a two-person library, and I suppose I approached it to advance another level.  However, it dawned on me that someone in the process of getting an MLS might be hired for the job, someone showing a commitment to the profession.  Then I thought, why not, and I applied for the job and applied to library school.  I was accepted for both.  Got off to a shaky start at the new job, being thrust in the position of supervising the student workers, but after learning from my mistakes, whether they involved payroll or scheduling and logistics, it worked all right, and gradually I was able to approach every situation with confidence, using the experience and knowledge I had about libraries and being open to what I didn't know.

Library school was fun, although difficult to manage while working full time, and a slow progression, one course per semester.  But I delighted in applying what I learned.  About that time came the second game changer for me, the arrival of the world wide web into mass consciousness.  My computer knowledge was mediocre, I knew how to use a word processor or check email by telnetting to a mainframe, and had mostly used dumb terminals to access the library systems.  The web was the great equalizer.  When I saw how the browser could take me just about anywhere with a URL, I felt I had arrived, perhaps like "stout Cortez, as he stared at the Pacific") (Keats, Chapman's Homer.)  I even learned rudimentary HTML, although web techniques have long since eclipsed my skills (thank heaven for content management systems.)

After completing my degree, I looked for a position and after several months found something interesting on one of the professional websites.  It described an opening running a library at a scientific research institute wholly unknown to me, although it turned out to be in the same city where I was working, and in fact I had gone jogging past it on many occasions but never knew what it was.  Although I didn't know anything about the science going on there, I knew about the organization of scientific libraries, scientific literature and scientific databases.  So there I went.  It was a hard adjustment and I felt intimidated, being the only one who did what I did, a librarian in a sea of scientists.  However, I knew one thing - I had a habit of finding information, and little by slowly I learned about the research groups and what they did, found out where they published and who they read, went to their talks and gleaned what I could.  A scientist at the institute told me he felt he could either do his experiments or follow the literature, so I took on the latter and soon was supplying each scientist relevant papers and citations and stories and leads even before they were requested. 

Eventually the family that owned the institute made a gift of it to a large university.  In one sense, this gave the scientists and me access to resources such as electronic journals and databases that we couldn't have afforded otherwise.  At the same time, with so much available at their desktops, the scientists spent less and less time in the library.  I experimented with tools such as blogs, Twitter, and a weekly newsletter.  Having seen, however, how other librarians in similar positions took on new responsibilities to increase the value of their units, I know I could have done more.  At one point, through the blog and university news channels, I tried to be something of the institute's publicist.  Finally, at the end of 2009, I was informed that the institute had a choice between keeping me or funding more scientists and they had chosen the latter. 

I don't know what my next move is.  Logically, I could use my experience in another academic library setting.  At the same time, I have some experience in public libraries (having moonlighted at one and volunteered at another,) and would also consider working within a company that may not have a physical library but would need access to and organization and dissemination of information to meet their goals.  I still like the idea of libraries, visited my home town library recently and was awed by the beauty of the facility and the fullness of the book collections.  And yet, I might not advise an organization to create a library in the traditional sense.

Where I'm going and where libraries and information are going, I don't know, but I will consider these things in future posts.

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